In March of 1883, Alva Vanderbilt threw one of the most lavish parties of the Gilded Age. Alva herself came as a Venetian princess, and a number of men went as Louis XVI, perhaps oblivious to the fact that the king lost his head due to such excess. Yet other New York Society members on her exclusive guest list dreamed up more eccentric garb.
Alice Vanderbilt wore an “Electric Light” dress that incorporated a working light bulb, and Lila O. Vanderbilt was outfitted as a hornet. Then there was Miss Kate Fearing Strong. Not only was Strong dressed as a cat, with a ribbon tied around her neck reading “Puss,” she was dressed with cats. As Ephemeral New York writes, Strong’s dress was “complete with an actual (dead) white feline as a head piece and a gown sewn with the body parts of real kitties,” and notes that the New York Times reported that the “overskirt was made entirely of white cats’ tails sewed on a dark background.”
The 1883 ball was the social event of the year, and propelled Alva Vanderbilt to the heights of the city’s elite. Still, it was far from the sole fancy dress ball of the Gilded Age, and certainly not the only one where fine ladies were adorning their luxurious dresses with dead animals. To help attendees think of new and novel costume ideas in which to strut mansions on Fifth Avenue and across the Atlantic in London, Ardern Holt authored Fancy dresses described : or, What to wear at fancy balls.
The Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum states on their blog that the book was so popular it went through multiple printings between the 1880s and 1890s. Holt also wrote a complementing publication called Gentlemen’s Fancy Dress: How to Choose it. The Internet Archive hosts a digitized version of Fancy dresses described from the collections of the University of California Libraries.
Holt opens the volume with the question: “But, what are we to wear?” Suggested options, with detailed directions on crafting the costumes, include historical figures like Catherine de Medici and Marie Stuart, mythical goddesses such as Diana, and fictional characters like Red Riding-Hood. However, there are just as many costumes that are, to use a more modern word, a bit conceptual. Windmill, glowworm, carrier pigeon, mist, postage, twilight, mushrooms, cherry pie, and air are a few that Holt’s book proposes. Some reflect the 19th-century interest in science (“Salt Water and Fresh Water” for a duo of sisters) and the fetishizing of the “exotic” in foreign nations (“Tunis Orange Girl” and “Egyptian Queen”).
Below are selections from Fancy dresses described, with many more for your Halloween costume inspiration online at the Internet Archive. As Holt writes, “It behoves those who really desire to look well to study what is individually becoming to themselves, and then to bring to bear some little care in the carrying out of the dresses they select, if they wish their costumes to be really a success.”
Hornet: “Short black or brown dress of velvet or satin … tunic pointed back and front, with gold stripes … cap of velvet with eyes and antennae of insect.”
Air: “A white tulle or gauze dress made with several skirts, one over the other, or blue over white, as light and gossamer as possible … The lower skirt is dotted about with silver swallows and other birds, the upper edged with silver fringe or lace, and covered with silver bees and a variety of insects.”
Incroyable (1789): “Very large satin bows; powdered head tied with a queue; cocked hat, wide lace cravat; cane with gold head, quaint scissor-shaped eye-glass of the period. This is a very favourite costume.”
Carrier Pigeon: “Full white tulle skirt over white satin skirt, with tunic in the shape of wings, composed of white feathers; pigeon in the hair and on shoulder. Band of red ribbon across bodice from right shoulder to under left arm, with leather attached; letters falling from feather fan; head-dress cap like pigeon’s head. Pigeons on shoulder.”
Dowager of Brionne: “The costume is well suited to a matron of mature age … The material must necessarily be rich. A gold watch and keys hang at the side; gold ornaments are introduced down the side of the dress.”
Dresden China: “A newer rendering has bows of ribbons and flowers on the shoulders, with a tiny china figure in the centre; a satin chapeau bras with more flowers springing from centre; crook and high-heeled shoes.”
Magpie: “Half black, half white dress; hair powdered on one side and not on the other … magpie on the shoulder and in hair, which may be powdered or not.”
Girl Graduate: “In academical robe and cap, which may be of plain or brocaded silk in black or colours … hair tied in a cue with ribbon.”
Goblin: “Tight-fitting justaucorps of red; red Vandyke tunic; winged hood with cape; fork in hand.”
Pillar Post: “Long red satin dress; white waistcoat with placard bearing hours of collection printed on it; head-dress, square cap, the same form as top of letter-box.”
Pansy: “Short white dress trimmed with deep rich-coloured violent pansies, one large, one forming the head-dress, the petals standing well round the head, like a brim.”
Esmeralda: “A rich gipsy dress in yellow, black, and scarlet satin, made short, trimmed with coins and gold braid … a tambourine carried in hand.”
Folly: “Cap of the two shades, like an inverted cornucopia; a fool’s bauble, viz., doll’s head and skirt, carried in hand; ornaments, bells. Good mixtures of colour are pink and blue; red, yellow, and black; blue and red.”
Music: “White satin dress trimmed round the edge with tulle and black velvet, to represent the keyboard of a piano … a scarf draped across the skirt has the treble and bass clefs on the fringed ends … Two sisters might appear as Music and Painting.”
Monte Carlo: “Dress, half red satin, half black velvet and lace … short skirt fringed with coins, and trimmed with cards … croupier’s rake carried in hand.”
Night: “A long black tulle fashionably-made evening dress, spangled with silver stars and crescents, silver crescent ornaments, silver belt; a crescent on the head … an owl on the shoulder.”
Find more costume tips in Fancy dresses described : or, What to wear at fancy balls (1887) by Arden Holt, online at the Internet Archive.